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Republic square

Visitors to Yerevan are inevitably drawn to the large and imposing Republic Square and it is an appropriate place to start a walk exploring Yerevan: in Soviet times the square was called Lenin Square.

The square is surrounded by the city’s finest ensemble of buildings, particularly the Armenia Marriott Hotel and the National Art Gallery and State Museum of Armenian History, where Stalinist scale meets Armenian architecture in a huge yellowand-cream building facing some massive fountains. The statue of Lenin now lies on its back in the museum’s courtyard, while the head is apparently stored in the basement. The centre of the square (more of an oval) is now a flat stretch of polished marble. New lights and repaired fountains make Hanrapetutyan Hraparak a focal point on warm afternoons and nights.

State History MuseumIt is certainly one of the finest central squares created anywhere in the world during the 20th century. The building on the northeast side with fountains outside is the State History Museum of 1926 with its white symmetrical colonnades to which the National Gallery of Art storeys in a similar colour were added in 1950. It formerly also held the Museum of the (Bolshevik) Revolution. The marriage of the 1926 original with the 1950 addition produces a curious effect looking like two quite separate buildings, one behind the other. It is sometimes claimed that Yerevan needed a large new art gallery after 1945 because many valuable works of art were brought here for safe keeping during the war years from other Soviet cities and never subsequently returned; the collection is almost certainly the finest in the former USSR apart from those of Moscow and St Petersburg. The water of the three fountains outside the museum sometimes dances in time to classical music on summer evenings while changes to the lighting are used to enhance the effect.

Underneath the square is a large bunker constructed during the Cold War to protect officials from danger in the event of a nuclear attack. Since independence, suggestions have been made that it could be handed over to the museum as an additional display area but lack of funding together with renewed tensions in the Middle East will probably ensure that it retains its original purpose for the time being.

To the left of the museum across Abovian Street on the northwest side of Republic Square is a government building designed by Samvel Safarian (1902-69) and built in the 1950s. It incorporates much Armenian detail but although built to harmonise with the earlier buildings it is somewhat more massive. It now houses t he Ministry of Foreign Affairs. By contrast the ground floor is occupied by one of Yerevan's best bookshops called Noah's Ark. Continuing anticlockwise, across Amirian Street is the curving facade of the Hotel Armenia, possibly Yerevan's best hotel after its opening in 1954 and very popular with the diaspora. It has now been extensively refurbished by the Marriott chain. During the rebuilding work a secret floor was discovered with a 1.5m-high ceiling: it was used by the KGB to spy on the guests. The pavement cafe outside is crowded by the diaspora from 08.00, when it opens, until late at night, when it closes, and I hey are certain to meet many of their acquaintances from home if only they sit here long enough.

statue of Mother ArmeniaStill continuing anticlockwise, a broad street with fountains down the middle is crossed. In the centre of the street formerly stood the statue of Lenin designed by Sergei Merkurov (1881-1952), erected in 1940 to mark the 20th anniversary of Soviet power and speedily removed, along with its huge pedestal, after independence. Standing where the statue once stood and looking at the hillside behind the museum it is possible to see the statue of Mother Armenia on an even larger plinth, 34m high, constructed in 1950 as the Victory Memorial in memory of the Great Patriotic War. The forged copper statue of Mother Armenia, a heroic figure holding a sword, was designed by the sculptor Ara Harutyunian and erected in 1967. Very provocatively for this date, the statue with sword takes the shape of the Cross. Mother Armenia actually stands in the space occupied from 1950 until 1962 by a 16.5m-tall statue of Stalin; at 21m Mother Armenia is, perhaps symbolically, taller than Stalin used to be. A Soviet writer in 1952, one year before Stalin's death, claimed:

Topping the Memorial Building is a statue of Stalin in a long greatcoat of which one lap is thrown open, showing the figure caught in a forward stride. In this statue wrought in Armenian bronze, the sculptor S. Merkurov (NB: The same who was responsible for Lenin), has depicted Stalin in a characteristic pose of dynamic movement, supreme composure and confidence. Stalin stands with one hand in his coat-breast and the other slightly lowered as though his arm, swung in rhythm with his step, has for one brief moment become frozen in space. Stalin's gaze rests upon the splendour of the new Armenian socialist capital, upon its new handsome buildings, its wide green avenues, upon the central square in the opposite end of the town. There, Lenin, in his ordinary workday suit, has swung abruptly around in that characteristic, impetuous, sweeping way of his, so dear and familiar to every Soviet man, woman and child. The statues are very tall and the impression is that the two great leaders exchange glances of deep understanding as they survey the prospering life around them, so much of it the handiwork of their own genius, their self-abnegating labours, their perspicacity, the wisdom that enabled them to see far into the future.

A flower bed has replaced Lenin whose statue, with head detached, lies stored in the courtyard behind the History Museum. The sculptor of the vanished Lenin and Stalin as well as of Stepan Shahumian, Sergei Merkurov (1881-1952), was no incompetent hack who devoted his whole working life to immortalising (?) communist leaders. Born in Alexandropol (present-day Gyumri), Merkurov studied in Paris where he was much influenced by Rodin before going on to sculpt many of the leading figures of his day as well as to create striking monuments to such figures as Chekhov and Pushkin.

The next building on the square, also built in 1950 and with a curving facade, houses a post office which is accessible through the left-hand door. Although not the main post office of Yerevan this one has a pleasing stained-glass window behind the counter depicting a woman in Armenian costume holding a telegraph tape. It is useful for buying stamps, especially as the staff actually know the postal rates for letters and cards sent abroad which is not always the case in Armenia. The building also houses the Ministry of Transport and Communications. In Soviet times it held the Council of Trade Unions.

The final building, on the southeast side of the square, was partly built under Tamanian's direction in 1926, though only completed in 1941. An irregular pentagonal structure with one curved side, it is possibly Tamanian's masterpiece. An elegant colonnade above arches forms a gallery along the whole facade and is combined with Armenian detail in the capitals. The archway to the inner courtyard is surmounted by a clock tower which usually flies the red, blue and orange Armenian flag (the building is home to the offices of government ministers) - one of the relatively few places in Yerevan where it is commonly seen. In Soviet days the flag which flew here was of course that of the Armenian Soviet Socialist Republic which actually went through four different designs. The last version, adopted in 1952, was red with a horizontal blue stripe across the middle and a yellow hammer and sickle together with a five-pointed star in the top left corner of the front.


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